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"Remarkable" Progress Seen In Recovery From 2011 Tornado


Private reflections and the tolling of church bells today marked the fifth anniversary of an unprecedented natural disaster in western Massachusetts.  A tornado, with sustained winds of 160 miles-an-hour claimed three lives, injured scores of people, left children emotionally scarred, and damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings and tens of thousands of trees.

The tornado impacted nine communities, leaving devastation along a 39-mile path that twisted and turned from Westfield to Sturbridge.  Among the hardest hit were the rural towns of Monson and Brimfield and the city of Springfield.

"I believe it has been remarkable the rebuilding that has occurred," said Mayor Domenic Sarno, in an interview Wednesday.

He said the recovery had been long and arduous. He praised the resiliency of residents who rebuilt their homes and businesses, rather than leave Springfield. He credited public safety officials and others in his administration for working tirelessly to get the city back on its feet.

" Those first months, really, you  kept going 24/7,"  Sarno recalled. " A shout-out to the people. They were just so resilient. Everywhere I went people said ' mayor, we're ok, we're ok.'"

The tornado crossed the Connecticut River and was on the ground in downtown Springfield at 4:38 p.m.  Stately old oak trees were uprooted in Court Square. The tornado traveled down Main Street into the South End where office workers took cover under their desks.

Main Street was left littered with bricks, broken glass, twisted metal, and shards of wood.  The tornado veered east into the Maple High Six Corners Neighborhood where apartment houses and an elementary school were ruined.

Crossing Watershops Pond, the tornado barreled into East Forest Park, a neighborhood of tidy houses on tree-lined streets.

Armando Feliciano had come home from work early that afternoon to take delivery of a new refrigerator.  When the skies turned black, he hustled his family into the basement and shielded them as the tornado sent trees crashing through the roof and walls.

When the storm passed, Feliciano, covered in dirt, came upstairs to a surreal scene.

" Half of a tree is in my house. My cabinets are torn," He recalled during an interview Tuesday. " My whole house was surrounded by ( downed ) trees, and neighbor's trees and trees that came over from the woods.  The funny thing is, I don't own a boat, my neighbors don't own a boat, and there was a boat in my backyard."

His two grandchildren, who were with him in the basement, were traumatized.

"They still when it starts raining or it gets windy and they see the trees moving they get really scared."

It was more than a year before the home was repaired and Feliciano and his family could move back in.  He tussled with his insurance company over how much he would receive to rebuild, ended up taking out a loan to cover the full costs, and was ripped off by an unscrupulous contractor for $10,000.

Feliciano said the experiences motivated him to join the board of Develop Springfield and to chair an annual gala that raises money for tornado victims.

" That put closure on my suffering," he said.

Sarno said the proverbial “silver lining inside the dark cloud” is the $2.7 billion in economic development that has come Springfield’s way in the last five years.

" Why not use this as a catalyst to improve and make stronger our whole city?  And we did that," said Sarno.

A tornado-damaged area of the South End is being redeveloped as the $950 million MGM casino. New houses have been built on the Central Street corridor. There is a new elementary school in the Maple High Six Corners neighborhood. A tree-planting initiative is slowly regreening the city. Streets, sidewalks, and parks have been upgraded.

Construction is expected to begin later this year on what are considered the last two major recovery projects: a new South End Community Center and a new Catholic high school in East Forest Park.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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